For years, residents of Houston's affluent Southampton Place and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods have been engaged in a very public battle against developers set on constructing a 23-story, mixed-use residential and commercial building at 1717 Bissonnet. Residents fear that a dreaded "Tower of Traffic" may soon rise above their beautiful neighborhoods, robbing them of backyard privacy and flooding their streets with traffic. Their battle against Buckhead Investment Partners of Houston has been raging on for nearly a decade, with battles won and lost on both sides. Anyone who has driven through that area over the years has seen the ugly yellow "Stop Ashby High Rise" signs scattered around the neighborhoods, and the (for now) quiet 1.7-acre empty lot where the proposed tower may eventually be built.
After a lengthy legal battle geared at stopping the project altogether, a judge ruled that, although the tower is a nuisance for its immediate neighbors, he didn't have a way to stop its construction, and instead awarded $1.2 million to a handful of residents. It seems that the tower will probably be built, although many folks who pay attention to local real estate trends are forecasting a serious downturn on the housing market soon. If that were to happen, it could have a chilling effect on plans to build the proposed tower. But since the lot is located in a highly desirable Inner Loop neighborhood, something will eventually be built there. No lot in central Houston will remain vacant forever. So applying some "out of the box" thinking, here are a few ideas for alternatives to the Ashby High Rise at the 1717 Bissonnet location.
8. A Drive-In Theater
After years of declining audience numbers, movie theaters have become hot again, and nothing has quite the retro-cool allure of a drive-in movie theater. Since one of the main complaints that area residents have with the proposed tower concerns an enormous outpouring of traffic onto Bissonnet, a drive-in would keep that in check, since outdoor movies are limited to running during lower-traffic, after-dark show times. Another complaint is that the tower would spill too much light into surrounding homes, but a 25-foot fence around the drive-in would take care of that problem!
7. A Used Car Lot and Scrapyard
Taking notes from other Inner Loop neighborhoods experiencing new construction and growth, perhaps what the area really needs is a Heights-style used car lot or a scrapyard. There's something very egalitarian about a neighborhood with a mix of expensive homes and used car lots selling sub-$4,000 vehicles. Nothing could be more "Houston," or better say "We really should've considered zoning more seriously," than seeing "No job or credit needed" signs along a street running through a residential area.
6. A Colony of Nearly Identical Town Homes
This is one of the ideas that the Stop The Ashby High Rise website proposes for a better use of the lot; reading through the organization's Q&A section, this bit stands out:
"The 23 story high-rise, depending on the developers final plans, would accommodate 5 townhomes PLUS either 231 rental units, or 187 condo units."
Based on casual observation in other parts of town, I'm pretty sure that a skilled developer could shoehorn in 40 or 50 nearly identical town homes if he were motivated enough. He'll just have to make sure to use the word "luxury" a lot in the ads, and make sure the town homes all have granite countertops and stainless everything. People will come. Houstonians love that stuff.
5. Low-Income Apartments
Referring again to that "231 rental units" portion from the Stop The Ashby High Rise Q&A, perhaps building low-income housing at the location would be a good idea. One of the continuing criticisms of the folks protesting the tower is that their neighborhoods are affluent, and the residents seem to feel that they should be granted protections that people living in less wealthy areas aren't. After all, low-income neighborhoods have experienced lots of redevelopment over the past few years, and it wasn't always welcomed by long-term residents. Why should the homeowners in Southampton Place or Boulevard Oaks feel they're owed different treatment in a town with no zoning?
What better way to kill accusations of snobbery or entitlement than to welcome a low-income development into the neighborhood? In an area where lots of poorer Houstonians are being driven out by escalating rent, low-income housing would help preserve a good socioeconomic mix in Inner Loop Houston.
4. A Skatepark
One thing Houston has always had an abundance of is concrete, and that created a unique local skate culture that stretches back decades. Recently, Houston seems to have embraced that legacy, and is becoming well known for several world-class skateparks that have sprung up around town. The lot at 1717 Bissonnet would be another ideal place for local skaters of all ages to congregate and hone their skills, and that would be totally rad.
3. A Flea Market and Carnival
Spending a few hours wandering the outdoor stalls of a flea market, looking for hidden treasures, can make for a pleasant afternoon, and while Houston has a few, it could always use one more. Building a flea market at the location would be a great way to create a walkable shopping environment, and having a permanent carnival on one side of the lot might help fill the void that AstroWorld's demise left for some of us. Yes, light pollution and noise concerns would have to be addressed, but in Houston, anything is possible. We've sent men to the moon; I'm sure someone can soundproof a fence.
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2. The "Not In My Backyard Battle Memorial Community Gardens"
If area residents manage to have their way, and the 23-story tower is never built, perhaps they can also rally together to buy the lot and turn the location into a memorial garden for their battle to stave off development in their neighborhood. I can envision beautiful tree-lined cobblestone walkways (paved in "Stop Ashby High Rise Sign Yellow," naturally) leading to an enormous topiary tree trimmed to look like the tower they defeated.
1. The Entrance to a Huge Dome Over Southampton Place
If the developers behind the Ashby High Rise development bow out, defeated in the prolonged war of attrition, then perhaps residents should consider building a huge dome over their neighborhood, to preserve it exactly the way it is now. The construction site at 1717 Bissonnet could be repurposed into a swanky entrance into Southampton Place, but only for folks with the proper ID card. Both Stephen King and The Simpsons have explored the idea of domed cities, and it would definitely keep any new development under a certain height. Besides, going back to the Astrodome, Houstonians would probably get behind the plan. We love domes!